By Jim Rueda
Free Press Sports Editor
— The offseason is the time of year college basketball coaches are supposed to lay low.
They do some recruiting, work on the schedule for the following season, maybe beg the athletic director for a few upgrades to the gymnasium. Those are the kinds of things Bethany Lutheran men’s basketball coach Dave Balza should be doing, but instead he’s become one of the media darlings of the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen.
As the founding coach of Florida Gulf Coast University, this year’s Cinderella team in the tournament, Balza has been in high demand this week to tell his story of how the Eagles were built. Of how a 15th seed could still be playing this late into the dance.
“It’s been a little hectic,” said Balza, who’s been contacted by Fox Sports North, the Wall Street Journal and the St. Paul Pioneer Press since FGCU won its second game in the tournament. “I watched both their games on television; it was kind of exciting.”
The Eagles’ starting guard, Sherwood Brown, was recruited by Balza and chose to join the team even though he did not get a scholarship his first season. Balza said it wasn’t because Brown didn’t deserve a scholarship or because the college didn’t want to give him one; it was simply because there were no scholarships left to be had.
“We were still transitioning from Division II to Division I and didn’t have our full complement of scholarships yet,” Balza said. “He was able to get scholarship money his second year, and then they became eligible for the tournament the last two seasons.”
The FGCU basketball team began in 2001, and Balza was hired as the first coach. The Eagles started at the Division II level and enjoyed success right away. They had a winning percentage of .745 through their first five seasons.
The transition to Division I began in 2007. FGCU was ineligible for postseason play for the next four years and then became a full-fledged D-I member starting in 2011. Balza was let go just before that season and ended up at Bethany.
“I don’t think anybody thought they would get this good this fast,” Balza said. “It’s quite an accomplishment to be the first 15th seed in tournament history to reach the Sweet Sixteen.”
Come Friday evening, Balza will be glued to the TV again to cheer on the Eagles.
“(The coaching staff I had at FGCU) looks at it as we wrote the first few chapter to what has turned into a pretty good novel,” he said. “Can’t wait to see how it ends.”
Jim Rueda is the Free Press sports editor. To contact him, call 344-6381 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.